The bustling, river port of PAKBENG is the halfway point between Houayxai and Luang Prabang, and the only sizeable town or roadhead along the 300km stretch of river between them. As slow boats don’t travel the Mekong after dark, a night here is unavoidable if you’re travelling this way – a taste of backcountry Laos complete with hill tribes and rustic accommodation. As you stumble off the slow boat at the end of a long day, the ramshackle settlement of wood-scrap, corrugated tin and hand-painted signs that constitutes the port area can be a bit of a culture shock. Since Pakbeng is many travellers’ first night in Laos, the expression on a lot of faces is one of “What have I got myself into?” Don’t worry: Pakbeng is typical of the northern backwoods only, and provided you don’t miss your morning boat you’ll be sipping lattes in Luang Prabang in no time.
Although first impressions of the town are generally unfavourable, Pakbeng is actually a very interesting place. Once extremely poor, it is now growing rapidly, with even a few big mansions going up. The town’s change of fortune is due to its role as an important trading post; goods from Thailand come down the river from Houayxai and then make their way up into the interior from here. Tourism has also been a big boon for the town, with the slow boats alone disgorging up hundreds of hungry backpackers a day.
Since most tourists to Pakbeng come by slow boat, arriving late and leaving early, many people think the port area around the landing is Pakbeng. In fact, the real town lies past the top of the hill and stretches for a good kilometre along the main road that follows the Mekong before turning north to Muang Beng and Oudomxai. The town is well worth a wander and has a couple of pleasant wats overlooking the Mekong. There’s no accommodation or restaurants in the old town, although you will find a few noodle shops and some stalls selling sausages and sticky rice.
The small market is located right at the top of the landing road past the Donevilasak where the road turns sharply right towards the town proper. There’s not a lot happening here but it’s worth visiting and there are some fõe stalls. The market convenes every morning and goes most of the day, and is frequented by Hmong women and children, although it appears that traditional dress has gone out of fashion among the Hmong in this vicinity. Heading out of town in either direction will quickly take you to very poor, traditional villages where you’ll soon be the centre of attention.